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Wednesday, November 18,2009

Curing sprawlitis

Now is the perfect time to start fixing 50 years of urban sprawl - and we can start in Lansing

by Amanda Harrell-Seyburn and Neal McNamara

Lansing’s urban landscape is afflicted with the disease of urban sprawl, and it has been creeping up around it for the last 50 years.

There was a time in Lansing’s history, somewhere around 75 years ago, where our streets were shared between cars, trolley lines, bicyclists and pedestrians. Buildings contained apartments and retail space, and neighborhoods were stocked with amenities, like grocery stores, which were easily accessible by residents.


But, a strange thing happened to all of that around the end of World War I. A system of zoning laws was created that made it impossible to build traditional neighborhoods. Most every municipality in the country, including Lansing and every other community in Michigan, adopted the zoning laws, which separated uses with the intent of improving citizens’ quality of life. Separate uses meant that in many places, it would become illegal to construct a building that contained housing and retail all in one.


Coinciding with these zoning laws were several other factors that created the sprawl we live with today. After World War II, the federal government began dealing cheap mortgages — reportedly cheaper than paying rent — to returning veterans, which fostered the creation of conventional suburban subdivisions of residential single-family homes and nothing else. Levittown in New York’s Long Island, begun in 1947, was the first cookiecutter suburb and considered the grandfather of the suburban subdivision. (Our favorite local suburban subdivision — known more succinctly as a “pod” — is the oxymoronically named Canyon Hills off of Willow Street. Developers often name their pods after that which they destroyed; for example, a subdivision called Eagle Creek may have destroyed an eagle habitat and a creek.)


The federal government was also busy at that time building the nation’s freeway system. The freeways allowed quick access to suburbs, and were cut into cities, destroying neighborhoods and interrupting the urban fabric. Car companies, realizing the potential to sell their product to all Americans, began buying and destroying the trolley systems that existed in practically every urban center in the country.


Soon, the car became king, and development was centered on vehicles. Communities in America continued to be built around and for the car, and cities began to empty as people flocked to suburbs for an allegedly better way of life.


In the wake of single-use zoning, we have built office parks, corrugated civic buildings, sidewalks that are merely ornamental, cul de sacs, drive-thru deep fryers, monolithic billboards, and big box garbage clusters all inaccessible without a car.


Single-use zoning gave way to the disease of sprawl, which, in the age of global warming, is becoming more unsustainable and environmentally unfriendly (both for the Earth, and for our mental health) each day.


The most obvious example of sprawl is in the housing pods, apartment farms, and big box plazas that line streets like Saginaw Highway and Grand River Avenue in Meridian Township, and major corridors in Lansing like Cedar Street and Marin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.


These areas, primarily, daunt the average pedestrian, and contain sidewalks that are barely used. They contain miles and miles of parking lots that at night are dark and vacant.


For now, we are stuck with this environment. Single zone development is misguided, though popular, and needs to be replaced immediately with a return to traditional neighborhoods where one can live, work and shop all within a five-minute walk.


Lansing is in an excellent position to cast off the separate-use mentality of the last half-century. The city has piqued the interest of developers — some of whom helped build sprawl — to start looking at the city as a place to build up rather than abandon. Lansing is embarking on its first meaningful master plan revision since 1958 (coincidentally, around the time that cities started to be destroyed). And the City Council, spurred by a large group of committed citizens, recently passed a "complete streets" ordinance, which could help calm some of our more dangerous thoroughfares for walkers and bikers (and save room for the precious cars).


Simply put, sprawl, car overuse, big box stores, fast food, and all the other villains of our landscape are unsustainable. Indeed, these creatures of sprawl will one day become vast, abandoned wastelands when gasoline becomes scarce and people begin to return to
cities. The development practices that have gutted our cities are
destined to fail, so we must act now to ensure that future development
is sustainable and healthy for our mental and physical environment.


The illness


It
should be noted that Lansing’s “sprawlitis” is bad, but not as bad as
some greenfield (a community built on virgin land) communities. Sprawl
has crawled up Lansing’s corridors and has even found its way into
neighborhoods. Anywhere you see a parking lot in front of a building,
the area is infected. It is particularly bad in south Lansing and along
Saginaw Street and Oakland Avenue.


A
good example of unsustainable sprawl is Cedar Street. The biggest
problem with sprawl is its ability to make walking or biking a
challenging, unpleasant and potentially dangerous activity. For
example, there are large apartment complexes on the north side of
Edgewood Boulevard near the corner of Cedar Street. The area around the
apartments is ripe with amenities, including dining, a movie theater
and several big box grocery stores. The problem is, for the residents
of this apartment complex, you would probably have to get in your car
just to cross Cedar Street to get to the Meijer. Any crosswalk that
spans Cedar Street from Edgewood Boulevard — which are far and few
between — is rendered unsafe by the speed and voracity of motorists in
the area. Further, Edgewood Boulevard is designed only for cars — there
is a sidewalk on only the north side of the street — and is cut down
the middle by a grassy strip. There are plenty of crossing points for
cars along Edgewood, but virtually none for pedestrians.


Ideally,
you should be within a five-minute walk from your house to basic
services: grocery stores, entertainment, and even work. This kind of situation exists almost nowhere in Lansing.


Dewayne Carver, a form-based code expert, says that the top 10 factors that make a community walkable, in descending order, are: street
trees, low traffic volumes, sidewalks, narrow streets, interconnected
streets, onstreet parking, lower traffic speeds, mixed land-use,
buildings fronted to the street, and small block size.


“Transportation design must be subordinate to urban design in walkable communities,” Carver says.


For
example, there may be a sidewalk connecting a resident from his house
to the Kroger supermarket on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, but the
rest of those nine factors are missing.


“Just
because a place has a sidewalk, it doesn’t make it walkable. People
aren’t going to walk if it isn’t safe,” says Leslie Kettren, president
of Michigan chapter of the Congress for the New Urbanism and author of
"Talking the Walk: Building Walkable Communities."


The
revitalization of Lansing depends on safety and security. The design of
streets and buildings should reinforce safe environments. Streets need
to be designed so that you feel safe. This includes being safe from
being hit by a speeding pick-up truck, or becoming the victim of a
crime. Urbanologist Jane Jacobs observed
that it’s important to have "eyes on the street," or to be surrounded
by fellow citizens, which can make you feel safe from assault. At
night, Lansing’s retail strips are dark, unguarded, unsafe asphalt
wastelands.


Lansing’s
urban core, especially around the Capitol Complex, along the southern
part of Washington Square, and along Capitol Avenue, is not considered
entirely walkable because large swaths have been sacrificed for surface
parking. Lansing also contains leapfrog subdivisions on the west side
along Willow Street and to the south along Waverly Road. Leap-frogging
is a term used to describe housing developments that are serpentine and
not connected to anything in particular. Leapfrogging subdivisions are
bad because people who live in them are surrounded by nothing but homes
built on large lots. To simply get a pat of butter, for example, a
resident of a conventional suburban subdivision would have to get in
his car and drive a long distance to a store; a better environment
would be one where a store is located near your home. These
subdivisions need to be reconfigured into traditional neighborhoods
that allow residents to access goods and services within walking distance of their home.


Traditional
walkable communities depend on density. Low-density subdivisions
(think, predominately dead-end culde-sac arrangements) cannot support
the amenities that a higher density traditional neighborhood can.


“Urban living is the most
sustainable way to live,” architect Andres Duany says. “The lower
density you live, the more you should be forced to compensate. The
higher density you live, you should be rewarded by not having to
compensate.”


The cure


We
need to slow the movement of cars by reducing lanes of traffic along
Lansing’s corridors and define their edges with effective architecture
and landscaping.


The
single-use zoning that has caused sprawl needs to be replaced with a
form-based code that regulates development in accordance with urban
form rather than use of the building, or the car. A form-based code is
less focused on land use than single-use zoning.


Fortunately,
such a system already exists in the SmartCode, which integrates land
development ordinances comprising zoning, subdivision regulations,
urban design, public works and basic architectural controls. The
SmartCode enables a community to predictably develop a community.


The
Miami-based planning and architecture firm Duany, Plater-Zyberk &
Co. originally developed SmartCode. The first version of SmartCode was
released in 2003. The SmartCode in use today is version nine. DPZ
developed the SmartCode in response to issues such
as sprawl and climate change. As opposed to more conventional zoning
codes, which may allow blank frontages (surface parking lots or
inappropriate landscaping), deep setbacks, sprawl and “formless open
space,” the SmartCode emphasizes mixed-use neighborhoods, walkable
streets, transportation options and formed civic spaces. SmartCode has
been in used in Kansas City, Gulfport, Miss., and Montgomery, Ala. — to
name a few — to great success.


SmartCode discourages sprawl. It supports walkable mixed-use neighborhoods and vibrant downtowns.


“The
SmartCode does not produce a single outcome (like Euclidean zoning) but
is outcome oriented,” says Duany, principal author of the SmartCode.


The
SmartCode is a realistic option for Lansing. Fortunately, adoption of
the SmartCode is possible due to low cost and a seeming willingness
among Lansing’s political leadership. The SmartCode itself is free at www.SmartCentral.com. In addition, Michigan is fortunate to have passionate Congress for New Urbanism members, seven of whom have
written a guidebook, "Form-Based Codes in 7-Steps: The Michigan
Guidebook to Livability," to aid Michigan communities with form-based
code adoption.


Lansing’s
urban vision is bright if it adopts the following principles
established by the Congress for New Urbanism: “Development patterns
should not blur or eradicate the edges of the metropolis. Infill
development within existing urban areas conserves environmental
resources, economic investment, and social fabric, while reclaiming
marginal and abandoned areas.”


The
urban design of Lansing needs to begin with a design charrette, which
is an intensive five-to-seven day collaborative process between design
professionals and residents in which designers develop a solution to a
design problem. They articulate a clear vision for the future of the
community, and follow the charrette by the implementation of a
form-based code that fosters future development in accordance with
Lansing’s vision. Implementation of the code should occur first in a
designated area of the community that is healthy and desirable.


In
Lansing, a perfect place to begin a new age of smart, urban development
would be in the Stadium District. Because Michigan Avenue is one of
Lansing’s main streets, and it was recently approved for a Corridor
Improvement Authority, our existing zoning laws should be tossed and
replaced with a form-based code.


“Build
on areas already fostering positive development first,” Kettren
recommends. “A successful district brings pride to the community.”


Implementation
of the code assures that development in the Stadium District would be
compact, pedestrian friendly, and mixed use. Beyond
the Stadium District, quality formbased development should proceed west
and east along Michigan Avenue. Areas not in compliance with the
form-based code need to be redeveloped and retrofitted. Successful
redevelopment of commercial corridors in Lansing depends on eliminating
one-way streets, reducing speed limits, and adding on-street parking.
In particular, redevelopment in the blocks surrounding the Capitol
should eliminate excessive surface parking and replace it with
mixed-use residential, apartments and townhouses. Parking should be
replaced with structured parking surrounded by commercial liner
buildings. Infill (use of land within a built-up urban fabric)
development in the blocks adjacent to government buildings would
increase the downtown’s vibrant environment by increasing resident
activity in the urban core.


“New
structures in the urban core need to be of a high quality but also
flexible to adapt to higher density in the future,” Kettren says.


Urban
development should spread into the adjacent neighborhoods and along the
commercial corridors. Neighborhoods should be a primary focus of
Lansing’s infill development.


“Lansing
needs to establish community centers or plazas in the neighborhoods;
this can be a park, a farmers market, or anything to establish a place
of activity for residents to meet,” Kettren says.


In
addition to community centers, Lansing’s neighborhoods need to vary the
style and cost of housing so that anyone of any income can interact
with one another. Mixedincome neighborhoods are the most sustainable
because they foster economic stability in a community. Due to the lack
of mixed income neighborhoods, another awful outgrowth of sprawlitis,
are single income neighborhoods that exclude lower income residents.
And sprawl greatly aided white flight, which gutted many cities in the
1960s.


Along the
commercial corridors of south Lansing — Pennsylvania Avenue, Cedar
Street and Jolly Road, to name a few — redevelopment should occur where
areas are not in compliance with form-based codes.


Planting
the seeds of quality design right now gives the city the option to make
correct development choices and fix the poor development of the past.
Just as it took over 30 years for south Lansing to develop into an
urban design mess, it will take a similar amount of time to redevelop
it in accordance with a form-based code. We don’t need an immediate
economic recovery or $1 billion of stimulus money.


Good
design is the pathway to Lansing’s becoming a model for urban design in
the state. We have the opportunity, as a community to put an end to an
urbanism that simply does not work and embrace the importance of form
rather than use to achieve exceptional urban design.


(Architect Amanda Harrell-Seyburn contributes weekly to the "Eyesore" and "Eyecandy" features in City Pulse.)




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